Producer Jeffrey Richards' political contribution to Broadway every dozen years — a starry and striped revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man — is amongst us again, bowing at the Schoenfeld on April's Fool Day. A coincidence, that date? I think not.
At 52, this comedy is now a quaint period-piece, harkening a little sadly back to a bygone day when contenders collided in backrooms to hammer out a winning ticket.
"I think it's important you keep it in the time when these conventions were still nominating conventions because what's happened in the ensuing years is that they're mostly ratifying events," reasoned Michael Wilson, the director in charge here of resurrecting this lost (or profoundly mislaid) American tradition. "The candidates have been chosen, and the network-televised convention has a way of publicizing their parties' platform, but back in 1960 you could go into a convention and not know who the nominee was. That was true when Nixon and Johnson were duking it out for the nomination. Even at that convention, Eleanor Roosevelt stood up and wanted them to select Adlai Stevenson. So I think it's very important you don't move the play out of its time because you can't say that's what happens today. Even if Rick Santorum goes all the way to Tampa, it will be the exception to the rule now that there are no longer nominating conventions."
Irrevocably then, the setting is the City of Brotherly Love on a bad week — the 1960 Presidential Convention. Back then, Vidal did not have to go outside one political party to find a conservative, a moderate and a liberal with Presidential delusions. Now you don't have to go outside Mitt Romney, but that's another story.
In this particular head-wrestle to the White House, we have two front-runners: Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette), an Adlai-like intellectual too smart for the average man and estranged from his politically dutiful wife (Candice Bergen) Vs. Senator Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a young Turk with ambition-in-overdrive and an un-brainy beauty of a wife (Kerry Butler). Russell knows what's right; Cantwell knows what works. Off in the distance is the alternative, a dark horse raring to go at a moment's notice.
The first people cast in this play and the first people on the marquee have less focal roles than the four above, but they were first in the hearts of their countrymen in attendance, and they were amply rewarded, coming and going, with applause.
Angela Lansbury, who has a famous history in films of making much of little, fills to the brim the smallish role of a widowed political warhorse — Sue-Ellen Gamadge, Chairman of the Women's Division — and leaves you wanting more. Cane in tow and splashily attired, she dispenses advice to potential First Ladies, fairly twittering with character-commenting tricks and wit while she does it.
"It's one of those great roles — you can just take it away," she beamed later, after swiping her every second on stage. She even seasoned the character with some Lone Star twang: "I'm very fond of Texans. I can take their way of speaking to my heart."
Lansbury doesn't linger long (dammit!). Then the heavyweight scene-stealer comes to roost in the best-written character in the play: "Artie" Hockstader, a former President at the convention to king-make the next one before he croaks.
Lee Tracy made a memorable "last hurrah" of this role, winning Tony and Oscar nominations. James Earl Jones just has a field day with it, lumbering around the ritzy hotel rooms, dispensing his rough logic to both contenders, refereeing when he has to, offering a glimpse of what kind of man the job requires.
"In a way, Angela's character, Mrs. Gamadge, and my character, Hockstader, are both shepherds to the party," he said. "They're both old, and they're the shepherds, she for the women, me for the men, trying to keep them in line and get the best out of the party. I love the play, and I love this company. I had a lovely time." Yes, he heard the exit applause. "If you do a Jackie Gleason exit, you'll get some kind of response."
But the other applause accorded him and Lansbury were for jobs well done, maybe even the best ever done. Dakin Matthews as a senatorial windbag, got some, too.
Sobered up and flying straight from his Emmy-winning inebriated-lawyer days on "Night Court," Larroquette makes a startling creditable contender for Oval Office duties. "I think the play is pertinent to what's going on," he pointed out. "It shows real people doing real things. Also, quite honestly, to be on a stage and be able to chop wood with James Earl Jones was certainly worth showing up for."
The intelligence that pervades his voice is an added Presidential plus, and it always seems to know where the joke is. "I think, with this play, it's important to keep the humor alive in it. There's a lot of humor in Gore's words." His character's way out of the corner he has painted himself into may win a majority of the audience's vote — but, he said, not everyone's: "Jack Kennedy, when he read this, looked at Gore Vidal and said, 'No politician would have done what William Russell did.'"
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